I was at a Central Otago Masterclass this morning, held in the Hilton in Charlemont Place. Struggling as I am with a pretty bad headcold and still recovering from a weekend in the lovely town of Bremen, I wasn't in the best of shape, but I thought Pinot Noir, especially from one of the most exciting Pinot regions in the world, was worth the effort.
We had three flights of 5 wines, each flight from different vintages. For the record, the wines were as follows:
2008 - light vintage, elegant, bright fruit
Desert Heart Mackenzies Run
Coal Pit Tiwha
2007 - big on concentration, small on quantity - very lush, ripe concentrated wines
Bannock Brae Barrel Selection
2006 - like 2008, but signicantly warmer, the wines are more tannic, higher in acidity, less fruit-driven
Olssens Jackson Barry
I wasn't familiar with most of these wines, the only ones I had tasted before were Mount Difficulty and Felton Road. There was a very clear difference between the three vintages and quality was high throughout, as were the prices (Felton Road was about average price, to give you an idea). The uniting theme, I suppose, throughout all the wines was the purity and brightness of the fruit.
A couple of interesting issues came up in the discussions throughout the morning:
1. There was only one bottle closed under cork. One of the bottles was corked and there seemed to be a bit of bottle variation, even with the good bottles.All the rest were in perfect condition.
2. Terroir. Or lack thereof. It was put to the speaker that, outside of Burgundy, terroir wasn't a relevant issue. That there are plenty of New World Pinot Noirs now with excellent fruit, well made wines at reasonable prices. What is so special about Otago?
3. Prices. All the wines we tasted would retail in Ireland for between €30-€50 (the prices on the sheet supplied were, as usual, completely wrong). Why are they so high?
My own thoughts? The wines, while expensive, were all of a very high quality. It would be unsual to get that consistency in a tasting of Pinot Noirs from anywhere else. Central Otago does seem to have something about it that produces excellent Pinot Noir. Even in 3 wildly different vintages, the wines were very, very good, but obviously with a lot of vintage variation. To get vintage variation ,but still churn out high quality is admirable.
In many cases, the vines are still very young. If they can produce wines of this quality with vines that are only 10-15 years old, surely the future holds great promise. It is maybe expecting too much to expect great expressions of terroir with vines so young. They are getting complexity, concentration, great fruit expression and balance; maybe the minerality will come. Maybe it won't. Maybe it doesn't matter, as someone else pointed out.
These are hand-crafted wines made by small wineries in a very remote part of the world in a marginal climate with a notoriously fickle grape variety. Of course, they are expensive. The big question is, are they worth it?
We are finding it hard to sell Felton Road at the moment because few are spending that kind of money on any wine at the moment. However, I really do believe the quality is there to justify the price. It is unfair to compare Otago with Burgundy because they are completely different animals. It's like comparing top Australian Shiraz with Cote Rotie. Taken on their own merits, there is complexity, balance, purity of expression. That's good enough for me.